MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) has come to Philippine shores, and the Department of Health assures the public that it is on top of the situation. The Filipino woman who tested positive for the virus is confined and receiving treatment at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. As of this writing, 11 of the 56 people who had close contact with her after her arrival from Saudi Arabia, including the health workers who first treated her at Evangelista Medical Specialty Hospital in San Pedro, Laguna, have come down with symptoms similar to those of MERS-CoV. The 11, including her husband, have since been admitted to the RITM for additional tests.
The patient, a 32-year-old nurse who is pregnant, arrived in the country last Feb. 1 on Saudi Airlines SV860, which had 220 passengers. Health authorities moved to locate the other passengers, but only 92 have so far been accounted for. It is important, indeed urgent, that the other passengers contact the DOH—(02) 7111001 or (02) 7111002—to be tested and, if needed, treated.
The symptoms of MERS-CoV are similar to those of the common flu: fever with cough, cold and shortness of breath. The incubation period is usually 14 days.
“There is no reason to panic,” Acting Health Secretary Janette Garin said in press conference on Friday. “The patient is being taken care of. But we must remain vigilant. We must be cautious, especially if you have been to the Middle East and you are manifesting some symptoms of the virus.”
MERS-CoV is considered a more lethal but less communicable cousin of the SARS virus. It was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to nine countries in the Middle East. The World Health
Organization has tallied 971 confirmed cases, with 356 deaths.
Because the disease is still new, there has been much speculation and fear about it. Last April, a Filipino man who had arrived in the country from the United Arab Emirates was suspected of infection. Tests later proved he did suffer from MERS-CoV but had recovered. All the other passengers on his flight also tested negative. But now it can no longer be disputed that MERS-CoV is here, and it is important that health authorities deal with that reality with alacrity.
It is equally important for the public to keep calm.
Already, a public elementary school right across from Evangelista Medical Specialty Hospital in the patient’s hometown virtually shut down when parents refused to let their children attend classes. There was a sudden demand for face masks from residents terrified of contracting the virus that drug stores soon ran out of stocks. The DOH sent its personnel to San Pedro to educate the residents on MERS-CoV, assuring them that it was not necessary to wear face masks.
The World Health Organization is already on the ground and coordinating with health authorities. Its representative in the Philippines, Julie Hall, thanked the Philippine government “for informing us early about this and for its willingness to share the samples, for collaboration is very important as part of the global effort to prevent the [spread] of MERS-CoV.”
Because of the heavy concentration of overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East who come home regularly, the fear of MERS-CoV is understandable. Last year in this space, we recommended that health authorities send teams to OFW communities in Middle Eastern countries to educate our workers on the disease. Now, on home grounds, it will do no one any good if panic spreads through irresponsible and ignorant statements. We must heed lessons from the SARS experience and the damage that rumors cause in the public and private realms.
Filipinos should heed health authorities and comply with guidelines issued to prevent the spread of MERS-CoV.
For starters, those flying in from the Middle East should truthfully fill out forms handed out for purposes of tracking the virus.
The responsibility of battling MERS-CoV and making sure that it does not spread lies on both the government and the public. Health authorities should maintain not only adequate medical facilities and personnel to meet the occasion but also a vigorous information campaign on the disease. And the public should keep itself informed, vigilant and level-headed.
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